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Evers would eliminate ‘swap’ mandate for federal transportation money

Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget would undo a bill passed during the Legislature’s lame-duck session that would concentrate federal money into fewer highway projects to curtail prevailing-wage requirements and other federal regulations.

The provision tucked into Evers’ biennial budget request would waive a requirement passed during the Legislature’s December extraordinary session calling for federal money to make up 70 percent of the funding of large highway projects, or highway rehabilitation jobs worth less than $10 million. Packing federal money into fewer projects has long been a goal for some GOP lawmakers, who argue that doing that will save money by decreasing the number of projects that fall under federal Davis Bacon prevailing-wage requirements and other rules.

“It is frustrating that Gov. Evers wants to repeal a pro-taxpayer reform in order to pay back the special interests who championed his election,” said Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg. “Allowing the DOT to spread federal funds across numerous projects only increases the number of projects subject to costly federal mandates. If Gov. Evers wants to win support for increased transportation taxes, proposals like this that reduce efficiencies are not a good way to make that case.”

Evers’ budget, which Republicans derided as a liberal wish list, would undo many of the laws that the GOP-controlled legislature passed in a lame-duck session just before he took over as Governor in early January. The budget would also reinstate a number of policies eliminated during the Walker administration, repeal the state’s right-to-work law and bring back prevailing wage on state projects.

One concern about the requirement concerning federal cash on transportation projects is that it could hamper Evers’ ability to put together a transportation budget. He has proposed increasing spending on infrastructure by about $600 million over the next biennial budget, and paying for that increase with a higher gas tax, among other things.

The proposal could give WisDOT and Evers “less flexibility” when they draw up transportation budgets, according to a Legislative Fiscal Buau report on the bill. Concentrating federal money into fewer jobs would force the state to shoulder the cost of a greater number of projects, according to the report, straining the state’s transportation funding.

Critics of the bill argue that the requirement could harm construction companies owned by women, minorities and veterans. Federal contracts often contain hiring goals that require such contractors to be hired. Projects funded by state money alone, however, haven’t got similar goals.

WisDOT may also miss out on some federal aid if it can’t raise enough to meet the 70 percent requirement. The state, for instance, often receives $40 million for transportation projects at the end of federal fiscal years. But, should the transportation-related bill become law, part of that money could be forfeit for certain projects if there were not enough of it to meet the 70 percent requirement.

The bill responds to that concern by allowing the 70 percent rule to be waived in certain cases — as long as the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee signs off.

Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association, said keeping federal money out of local projects such as bridge replacements could help those sorts of projects get done faster and cheaper. Federal regulations often add layers of requirements that delay simple projects and drive up their costs. Still, he said, he’s hopeful that clearer administrative rules at WisDOT could streamline local construction projects.

“For the contractors in this state, I believe it’s absolutely critical,” Fedderly said. “We have a local bridge industry that is starving for quantities, starving for work.”

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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